With what environmental organization are you affiliated?
Johnson: I’m a 6th grade student at Masterman Middle School in Philadelphia, and I work with Earth Force.
Contrisciane: I am a program coordinator with Earth Force, a national organization that aims to engage young people as environmental citizens.
What does your organization do?
Contrisciane: Earth Force does a lot of work with teacher professional development and youth development. We train teachers to execute our Community Action Problem Solving process in their classrooms. Once the students have identified some environmental issues they are concerned about in their communities, we give them the support to figure out what they can do about it. We try to encourage teachers and students to take on local issues where they can really see the impacts of their actions.
Some of our students have done amazing projects because they feel so empowered. We’ve had a fourth-grade class convince their school board to install a pervious blacktop when they were repaving the parking lot; other classes have lobbied their townships to clean waterways and repair sewer drains; one school created an urban tree farm on a vacant lot. It’s amazing what can be done once we let the students be in charge.
What are you working on at the moment? Any major projects?
Johnson: Earth Force has been working with my class on water pollution to see how we can make the water quality better in school and what we can do out of school to make sure water quality is good too. We have worked with the Philadelphia Water Department to find out how we can test our water, and we’re trying to see if we can get filters put in our school. We did a lot of research, and we found out that lead can be a big problem for the human body and the way water tastes. We are in the process of getting testing kits to see if our water is up to par.
Contrisciane: When there are three program staff working with more than 50 teachers, there is always a major project. Right now, we’re gearing up for our annual Youth Summit that will be held at the Philadelphia Zoo on April 19 and 20. The Youth Summit is a gathering of 600 Earth Force students and educators to showcase the projects on which they’ve been working.
How do you get to school or work?
Johnson: My mom drives me because she works across the street from the school. My school isn’t in my neighborhood.
Contrisciane: Most days, my job dictates that I drive. There is a lot of running between schools, and back and forth to the office and other events.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
Johnson: I started working on a neighborhood garden when I was 10, and that really got me interested in the environment. Then my teacher this year, Ms. Christian, found out that I had been working on the garden, and she thought it would be good for me to get involved with an Earth Force project. My goal is to start an environmental business that will make environmentally friendly products, and from the profits my company will fund projects that clean up places that other companies pollute.
Contrisciane: I studied special education in college, and I took a lot of earth science electives along the way. After school, I volunteered with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Bridgeport, Conn., where I worked on youth development and learned a lot about environmental-justice issues. Then I moved to Arizona to work at Anasazi, a wilderness therapy organization, which was a fantastic experience. It was amazing to see how “troubled teens” reacted to being out in the wilderness for six weeks. It inspired me to try my hand at teaching, which is definitely one of the toughest jobs out there.
As a teacher, I really wanted to make learning an authentic and moving experience for my students, and I wanted to use nature as a vehicle to do that. It was really hard to do, especially in an urban setting where more and more energy is focused on raising standardized test scores and administrators come down hard on teachers who deviate from the curriculum. I learned about Earth Force just before I was completely burned out. Now it’s my job to be a resource and support for teachers who want to engage their students in environmental problem-solving, and that is really exciting.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
Johnson: I was born in the old naval base hospital in Philadelphia. I currently live in Philadelphia.
Contrisciane: I was born in the suburbs of Philadelphia. After some stops in Connecticut and Arizona, I’m back in the City of Brotherly Love and loving it.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
Johnson: When I started trying to raise funds so that I could start a business. Since I’m a child, people didn’t look at me on a business level and didn’t think I could handle the responsibility that comes with it. That really upset me, but I was always told that the way you really are successful is by doing what people don’t think you can do.
Contrisciane: When I was beaten up by two of my students while I was teaching. But that wasn’t a wholly negative experience. They managed to knock enough sense into me to make me realize that there were better options for me outside of the classroom.
What’s been the best?
Johnson: The best was when I really got people to start to believe in me, like some of my family members. They could see that I really had my head on straight and that I really am serious about what I am doing. I was able to get a few people to make some investments for me now, so I can start a business in the future.
Contrisciane: One of the best happened recently at an alternative school where many of the students have dabbled a bit in the juvenile-justice system. The high-school class with which I work decided to implement a schoolwide paper-recycling program. The administration had a lot of questions about how it would work, so the students did a presentation on their plans for the entire staff. The presentation went so well that the students received 100 percent support from the staff and administration. When it was over, the students were exuberant because they knew they nailed it. Then one of them looked at me and said, “You know, that’s the first time I ever did public speaking outside of court!” Now their recycling program is in full swing. It’s a great feeling that we can offer these types of positive experiences for young people.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
Johnson: When companies try to cover up pollution they have caused.
Contrisciane: Recently it’s been the politics of recycling in Philadelphia. Our recycling participation rate hovers around 6 percent, but a recent incentive-based pilot program from Recycle Bank has raised the participation rate to 95 percent in two neighborhoods. It’s saving the city money, and the residents love it. Yet the city almost cut the program! A number of neighborhoods and organizations are starting to rally for the program, so we’ll see what a little organizing can do.
Who is your environmental hero?
Johnson: Miss Walley from the neighborhood garden project, and Miss Megan and Ms. Colleen from Earth Force. They are all really trying to make a difference in the environment.
Contrisciane: Dr. Rajul Pandya, a former teacher (of course!). I took his atmospheric science class in college, and it really changed how I looked at human impacts on the atmosphere and the environment.
What’s your environmental vice?
Johnson: I always get people to drive me places because I don’t like to walk.
Contrisciane: I drive way more than I like to admit to.
How do you spend your free time (if you have any)? Read any good books lately?
Johnson: I’m very athletic so I play a lot of basketball for a team in Philadelphia. I just finished reading The 48 Laws of Power. The book talks a lot about strategies for making business deals. I also really like to read BBC news because it has a lot of interesting environmental news that really helps me keep updated on the issues.
Contrisciane: Rock climbing! (Especially when it’s for a good cause …) I’m also involved with a lot of neighborhood organizing with East Falls Tree Tenders and Recycle Now Philadelphia. My current read is The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.
What’s your favorite meal?
Johnson: Caesar salad.
Contrisciane: Samosas and squash or lentil soup with a nice Belgian beer, followed by a gigantic, chewy chocolate chip cookie.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
Contrisciane: I’m a vegetarian who only wears makeup on Halloween.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
Johnson: The Delaware River.
Contrisciane: Right now, Wissahickon Park, part of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park system, is very near and dear to my heart (and to my front door). There is great hiking along the Wissahickon Creek, and even some rock climbing too.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
Johnson: We need tighter regulations so that companies would really have to change what they put in the environment.
Contrisciane: Everyone should take some sort of environmental education class every five years, even if it’s just learning about the local watershed or a park’s ecosystem. As I’ve watched my students, they seem to want to take more responsibility with the more they learn about their surroundings.
Who was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?
Johnson: Now, Carlos Santana because of the way he can play guitar.
Contrisciane: When I was 18, Radiohead, Tori Amos, Violent Femmes, Cat Stevens. Radiohead has remained at the top, but recently I’ve enjoyed listening to local bands like Slo Mo, The Curb, and Birdie Bush.
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
Which actor would play you in the story of your life?
Johnson: Denzel Washington.
Contrisciane: Tracey Ullman.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Johnson: They should really just be more environmentally conscious and think about their actions.
Contrisciane: I would definitely encourage everyone to get involved with at least one community club or organization. It’s a great way to build community and meet people, and there’s always something fun and exciting happening.
A Class Act
Is it fun to do Earth Force? How do you join the Earth Force project? — Elisse Duvall, Manteo, N.C.
Johnson: Yes, Earth Force is a very fun project, and most kids get involved through their school and clubs that deal with the environment at their school. You can also call or go to the Earth Force website to get involved and learn more.
Contrisciane: Yes, it’s fun to do Earth Force! That’s why I like my job so much. It’s also a lot of hard work.
Do you have to live in a certain area to join Earth Force? — Elisse Duvall, Manteo, N.C.
Johnson: You don’t have to. You can really just talk to your local Earth Force representatives. You should start an environmental program even if there is no Earth Force program in your area.
Contrisciane: To join, it really helps if you have an office nearby to help you get started, but it’s not absolutely necessary. We have a lot of materials that can help you start on your own if you really want to. Check out our website to find out where we’re located. If you don’t see a location near you, you can call our national office at 1.800.23.FORCE or the office closest to you to find out when we’re doing a training near you.
What is your best advice for getting other kids to get involved? Has it been difficult to get a sincere and lasting commitment from kids your age? — Karen Johnson, Murfreesboro, Tenn.
Johnson: I think parents are the key to getting kids involved in the environment because kids follow what their parents do and that is important. I admit it has been hard, but we got them to be sincere after a period of time.
Contrisciane: My best advice for getting other kids involved is to help them find out what their interests are. Many people, young or old, who claim they’re not “really environmental” find that they have some other social or political concerns that often relate back to the environment once they’ve done some research on the topic. I’ve found that the youth who are really committed and dedicated are often the ones who have someone to support them, be it a teacher, a neighbor, or a parent. So if you’re a young person looking to get involved with something you’re concerned about, commit yourself to working on it, then find someone who thinks you have a good idea and who might be able to give you some advice.
What was the thing that really helped you be motivated to get started? — Crispina French, Great Barrington, Mass.
Johnson: I really just enjoyed doing it, and it was fun so I said I would stick with it for the long run. This is a very good organization, and I like it.
Contrisciane: Once I started becoming interested in environmental action, I started seeking out other people who were interested in the same work. Sometimes it was a teacher, sometimes a community group, other times a peer who was just as interested or excited as I was. Once you start finding others who want to work on the same issues you do, it becomes a lot easier to motivate yourself … because you have others to motivate you too.
Is Earth Force a long-term thing or is it just something you do for a certain period of time? Is there a certain person that you work with or is it just a single-person project? — Elisse Duvall, Manteo, N.C.
Johnson: You can do numerous projects. You make it a long-term process or short-term project depending on the amount of time you want to do it.
Contrisciane: It depends. Generally the projects last a school year or shorter just so it’s feasible for an Earth Force teacher to have her class finish a project within a year. Sometimes, though, we’ll have a few students who were so motivated by the project they did that they will continue to work on it after they leave that teacher. Most of our projects are done by an entire class or a class will break up into small groups and each group will work on a project. Sometimes a student will do an independent project … it really depends on the teacher. One of the beauties of Earth Force is that the CAPS program offers a framework that is very accessible for teachers in any environment. It leaves room for a lot of flexibility and creativity.
Why seek water filters at your school before official water test results are in? A water taste opinion survey may give information, but will it persuade budget-conscious decision-makers? I’m glad you’re getting involved and making a difference locally, and you are a great role model for your peers. Keep it up! Good luck. — David Hohmann, Columbus, Ohio
Johnson: I thank you for the comment, and I really don’t think it should matter if we did testing before or after because I think if they would do what they are supposed to then they wouldn’t have to worry about their budget.
What do you consider the greatest environmental threat to the planet at this time? — Karen White, Houston, Texas
Contrisciane: Vehicles. Exhaust is bad for the air, motor oil is the world’s biggest culprit of non-point-source water pollution, and vehicles are essential to a huge percentage of the world’s population. It’s something about which everyone is aware, yet most feel like they have little control. I really don’t like that my lifestyle requires a car. On one hand, I have made certain decisions that require me to have a car, but on the other, I was born into a society where the overarching cultural constructs are hugely car dependent. It’s a dilemma a lot of people wrestle with. Sure, we car-users can purchase wind power to offset our impacts, buy local produce and products, and ride bikes when we can (which I’m a big proponent of), but at the end of the day, we still need to get from here to there.
In your future business goal, Terrain, would you be subsidizing messy companies if you go around cleaning up after them all the time? I pick up other people’s litter all the time, but I also report littering in progress and hope somebody else starts getting the message. A useful strategy might be to invest profits in helping others prevent pollution up front, saving money and reducing waste from that point forward in time. Good luck in a sustainable business venture! — David Hohmann, Columbus, Ohio
Johnson: I think that is a very good idea. I really would have to get more connections for that, but no work, no gain.
Terrain, I was born and raised in Philadelphia, so I cannot tell you how proud I am of you, and I’m happy that you are doing so much good for our beautiful hometown. Is there a network of community gardeners and others who are trying to do what you do throughout the city? — Mark Stephen Caponigro, New York, N.Y.
Johnson: I really am not sure. The lady who owns the garden that I help with does know a lot of people who garden so I think we really could organize something of that kind. Thank you for the idea, and I will make sure to credit it to you.
As a vegetarian, I am convinced that refraining from consuming meat is one of the most valuable steps a person can take to enhance the quality of the environment. Colleen, do you promote vegetarianism to the students with whom you work? — Marylou Noble, Portland, Ore.
Contrisciane: I don’t exactly promote it, but I always try to talk about individual actions and how they impact the environment. Many students don’t see a clear connection between their behavior and the effect of their behavior on the environment, so I’ll use whatever I can to start getting them to see the connection. Sometimes that means having a discussion about land use for cattle or the environmental effects of chicken farming. We did have one school last year do an outreach campaign in their community and two schools promoting the purchase of free-range products and educating people about why factory farming is bad.
I am concerned that as an ecosystem, Wissahickon Creek does not support as diverse a fauna as it might; I am thinking especially of fish and migratory birds. Can you tell me anything about that? How pure nowadays is the Wissahickon? — Mark Stephen Caponigro, New York, N.Y.
Contrisciane: Amen! I’m also concerned. I do know the water quality of the Wissahickon has improved dramatically over the last 100 years. Just last year a huge sewer main along the creek was repaired because it was leaking raw sewage into it. One of the more impressive parts of that project is that the problem was found by a group of concerned citizens who took it upon themselves to do the water-quality testing. Some of our classes are actually helping with bird counts, but the calculating is still being done.
Colleen, I’m sorry your students beat you up that time. Yet I’m glad you are making a positive difference in kids’ lives through Earth Force, and I hope you keep that inspiration alive for a long time. Many of us outside of urban schools need causes for hope. Martin Luther King would have liked this kind of nonviolent “Force” approach. I hope Grist readers will support Earth Force and maybe help spread it to more areas. — David Hohmann, Columbus, Ohio
Contrisciane: Well said. I hope Grist readers will support us too!